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Horizontal remediation wells complex, yet viable market niche.

Ten years ago the rapidly-growing directional drilling industry discovered what appeared to be a virtually unlimited new market.

Contractors who specialized in installing underground utilities with HDD equipment learned that their drill rigs also could install horizontal remediation wells to clean up underground soil and ground water contamination.

Well screen--pipe with slots in it--is all integral component of a remediation well; most well screens were--and still are--installed vertically, usually by water well drillers. A small remediation project may have a half dozen vertical wells while large areas would require numerous wells placed in locations designed to access underground plumes (pockets) of contamination.

However, on many projects, horizontal wells can be more effective; a single properly-installed horizontal installation often is able to outperform many vertical wells.

Research conducted by the Department of Energy (DOE) at its Savannah River site in South Carolina, and by Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM, documented the effectiveness of horizontal well remediation. Publication of Sandia's interim report in 1994, followed by several successful horizontal well projects and trade magazine reports on the benefits of horizontal well technology, helped generate short-lived enthusiasm in the horizontal well market.

Some utility contractors concluded there soon would be a huge demand for HDD specialists to install horizontal remediation wells at per-foot prices many times higher than they were getting for utility work. Suppliers organized seminars instructing contractors on how to best take advantage of the coming bonanza, and there were those that paid for crew members to be trained to work with hazardous materials, a requirement for working on environmental remediation projects.

Flat growth

But little happened. Owners of companies who had prepared for remediation business found little pay back for their efforts.

"It appeared at the time that there could be great potential for directional drilling in the environmental market," remembers James Ezell, Southern Diversified Technologies Inc., a telecommunications contractor based in Loganville, GA. As did others, Ezell heard predictions of horizontal well enthusiasts that ultimately demand for environmental directional drilling would surpass that of utility markets.

"We invested in training to get personnel certified to work with hazardous materials so we could pursue environmental remediation projects," Ezell continues. "And we did a few environmental jobs. Installing horizontal wells is certainly more complex than utility installations. We found the environmental industry was not aware of the benefits of the technology and the demand for horizontal wells wasn't growing."

Southern Diversified made the business decision to concentrate on telecom work and not to pursue other environmental projects.

"Looking back," says Ezell, "I believe timing was against sustained interest by HDD contractors in developing the market. It was when the telecom boom began and our company, like others, made the decision to pursue the 'easy' work we were experienced in, rather than invest in trying to develop a completely new and difficult market."

When the telecom bubble burst, did Ezell's company consider using its earlier experience to reenter the environmental market?

"No," he says now, "it wasn't a consideration. We had defined who we are and chose to continue to be a telecom contractor and ride out the downturn in other ways."

However, Ezell believes horizontal wells have real benefits and that they have a place in the environmental industry. But then, as now, there is no sustained effort to educate the engineers who design remediation systems about what those benefits are.

Benefits remain

Indeed, engineers who have used horizontal remediation wells say the benefits of horizontal well technology identified at Savannah River by the Sandia studies are valid. Each year a small number of horizontal wells are installed, but there is no sign that many environmental engineers are ready to include horizontal wells in their plans, and the number of contractors installing horizontal wells today likely is smaller than 10 years ago.

Two of those who remain active are Directional Technologies Inc., (DTI) North Haven, CT, and Jackson Creek Enterprises, Allerton, IA. DTI completed two remediation projects earlier this year, Jackson Creek has several scheduled later this year.

DTI has done environmental drilling for nine years and drilled test wells at New York's JFK International Airport, one of the largest, highest profile horizontal well projects ever undertaken.

"Horizontal well jobs turn up from time to time," says Mike Sequino, who with his wife Kathy, own and manage DTI. "And we've been doing them so long, engineers know who we are, that we understand the process, and that we can help them achieve their goals.

"But 95 percent of our work is utility construction."

David Wampler, owner of Jackson Creek Enterprises, says a small number of projects today are designed to utilize horizontal wells.

"The remediation industry," he adds, "has never embraced horizontal well technology, and directional drilling is still considered 'new' in this field."

Currently most of Jackson Creek's work is for water and sewer installations.

Project examples

DTI's most recent remediation projects were in Florida and Pennsylvania. In Tallahassee, DTI installed two air sparge wells, each with 1,350-foot-long, 3-inch diameter HDPE screens placed 80 feet deep. They were placed beneath roadways, two service stations and two other structures. The well screens provided access to contamination that would have been difficult to reach with vertical wells.

Pilot holes through silty clay soil were completed over a three-day period. Both screens were pulled into place in one day. A 40,000-pound pullback Ditch Witch JT4020 made the installations. Guidance services were provided by Sharewell, Houston, TX, using a TruTracker system. Pipe was provided by Premier Drill Pipe Ltd, Houston.

"Because of the length of the two wells, we purchased new drill pipe for this project," says Sequino. "We use an upset forged pipe designed by Premier, because it performs extremely well in the New England cobble where we frequently work."

The other project involved installation of one 360 fool-long, of 6-inch diameter well screen 24-feet deep.

"This location" says Sequino, "has been used for industrial purposes since the mid 1700s when whale oil once was brought here for refining. Soil conditions were sand, gravel and fill, but there were many unknowns such as old pipes and tunnels."

The pilot hole was successfully completed, but trouble came during pre-reaming. The backreamer--apparently entangled in old cable--became bound in a fill area.

"The second pilot bore went through an old tunnel where barrels of whale oil were brought in from the docks," he continues, "and we finally installed well screen through this hole after multiple reaming runs and repairs to the reamer."

The same JT4020 and Premier pipe were used; tracking was done with a Radiodetection walk-over system.

Jackson Creek has made HDD installations of well screen for pump-and-treat, air sparge and soil vapor extraction wells. The company installs most horizontal wells with 24,000-pound pullback Vermeer D24x40 equipment and, depending on job conditions, also uses 7,000-pound D7x11 and 50,000-pound D50x100. Wampler says he is not authorized to provide details of pending projects.

"It is not unusual," he says, "that contractors must sign nondisclosure agreements with clients who do not want anyone to be aware that their sites have contamination problems."

Remediation future

What would Sequino and Wampler tell other HDD contractors about pursuing environmental work?

"The remediation market is totally different from other HDD markets," observes Wampler. "This is not the type of work that your average HDD contractor can do mainly because they are unwilling to commit the time and resources necessary to have a trained and qualified crew.

"Experience and training are extremely important in this field. All workers have to be current on their 40-hour HAZWOPER certification. On most jobs, expect to spend a full day on safety and site orientation and another one to two hours per day on safety issues. A water well driller's license from the state where the work is being done is usually mandatory. The contractor is expected to have a health and safety plan. All workers should have a baseline physical and periodic physicals to monitor their condition. A work comp experience rood factor of 1 or less is usually mandatory."

Environmental directional drilling is much different than it is for other applications, emphasizes Sequino.

"There is a big learning curve, and unless you are prepared to spend time and money learning the market, it's best to stay out of it," he advises. "Well screen must be installed exactly in accordance with the plan. If it is to be 25-feet deep, that means 24 or 26 feet isn't acceptable. And there are many costs related to environmental work that are never encountered in utility drilling. For example, drilling often is through contaminated areas that requires following safety procedures for hazardous materials and drilling equipment must be decontaminated, a time-consuming task that adds to the cost of a project."

The time and costs associated with learning the market and training personnel may be difficult to recover.

"Getting environmental work without experience is very difficult," Sequino continues. "Engineering firms today require a pretty hefty resume just to bid on most jobs. Paperwork is very daunting; some proposals are complex, and it takes knowledge of environmental technologies."

Says Wampler: "I have found that most remediation jobs are several years in the making. Between the engineers, the regulators and the property owners, nothing moves fast. When the decision to proceed is finely made, then they want it done last week."

Insurance is another issue. "Insurance companies," says Sequino, "have learned what HDD is, and our high rates reflect the perceived risk of hitting something that will result in costly damages. In addition to general liability insurance, environmental contractors must carry pollution liability as well and premiums can run two to three times higher."

Level market

Finally, there are no signs that demand for environmental directional drilling will increase in the immediate future.

"It is not an emerging market," says Sequino. "The number of horizontal wells being installed in the U.S. remains level."

"I do not think this market will ever be significant for the HDD industry," says Wampler. "And I do not know a single HDD contractor that is making a living solely from environmental work--there have been several that have tried in the past and they are no longer hi business. With that said, I do believe, however, that it could be significant for a handful of HDD contractors that understand the market and have experience in it."

Wampler remains interested in remediation jobs, because he does understand the market from experience gained over the past nine years.

"We're in the loop," he points out, "so it makes sense to use our knowledge when environmental projects come our way. And we like the challenge--most remediation jobs are fairly difficult, almost always under buildings or other surface improvements, and it is satisfying to successfully complete difficult projects."

Concludes Sequino: "We have stayed in the environmental business because it is rewarding to use horizontal drilling technology to solve problems which may never have been realized otherwise."


Environmental contractors:

Jackson Creek Enterprises, (641) 873-6500; or circle reader service number 148 Directional Technologies Inc., (203) 248-9599, or circle reader service number 149 Southern Diversified Technologies, (770) 554,4011, or circle reader service number 150

Directional drilling rigs:

Ditch Witch, 800) 654-6481, or circle reader service number 151 Vermeer, (888) VERMEER, or circle reader service number 152

Wireline locator:

Sharewell Inc., (800) 637-6461 or (713) 983-9818, or circle reader service number 153

Walkover locator:

Radiodetection, (201) 848-8070, or circle reader service number 154

Drill pipe:

Premier Pipe, (713) 631-0071, or circle reader service number 155

HDD & Environmental Remediation

A horizontal remediation well is a length of slotted pipe (screen in environmental terminology) which is placed in the ground to access contaminated soil or groundwater. Depending on the contamination patterns and the remediation system used, remediation--restoring soil or water to a condition that is safe for plants, animals, and people--takes several months or years.

Directional drills often are able to reach underground contamination plumes under buildings, paved areas, surface improvements, beneath streams and rivers, and in other areas where traditional methods cannot be used. Because underground plumes often spread horizontally, fewer horizontal wells may be required to treat a site than the number of vertical wells that would be needed.

Basic uses of directional drilling equipment for environmental remediation include:

* Installing wells to remove contaminated ground water for treatment;

* Placing well screen for in situ air sparging, a procedure involving the injection of air into contaminated ground water to volatize chemicals and carry them to the vadose zone for capture, treatment, or removal;

* Installation of wells for soil vapor extraction which draws out contaminated air. Air sparging and soil vapor extraction of Zen are used on the same project; and

* Placement of bioremediation conduits in which screen supply food, air and water to naturally-occurring microorganisms which transform and degrade contamination into non-toxic substances.

Horizontal wells also are used to prevent contaminant migration and for characterization (taking samples for evaluation) of subsurface contamination under buildings and other areas where surface conditions prevent the drilling of vertical wells.

Proponents of horizontal well methods say that properly planned and executed horizontal well projects are more cost effective and often technically superior to projects using other methods, and that horizontal wells provide the least disruptive way to clean up many contaminated areas.
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Author:Griffin, Jeff
Publication:Underground Construction
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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